January 30, 2009 / 5:30 PM / in 9 years

EU to debate cloning for food, wary of trade impact

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU regulators will discuss again in a few months whether to allow meat and milk products from cloned animals into the food chain, despite local consumer opposition and inconclusive data, officials said on Friday.

Flags are reflected in a window at the European Council building, a day before European Union heads of state summit, in Brussels in this file photo from June 18, 2008. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Animal cloning has been around for years. Dolly the cloned sheep was born in 1996, for example. Now, scientists estimate the EU has 100 cattle clones and fewer pig clones alive. Race horses have also been cloned.

Many consumer and religious groups strongly oppose the technology, which takes cells from an adult and fuses them with others before implanting them in a surrogate mother. They say scientists don’t know its effects on nutrition and biology.

But advocates of livestock cloning say the technology will help produce more milk and lean, tender meat by creating more disease-resistant animals. They insist it is safe.

Europe has yet to take a position on the technology as far as cloning of animals for food is concerned, which the European Commission says has not yet occurred in the European Union. Denmark is the only EU country to have adopted any cloning law.

After holding a closed-door debate recently on food deriving from cloned animals that ended in stalemate, the Commission delayed discussing the subject further, asking the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for more in-depth scientific advice.

A ban, if not properly justified, could lead to problems for the EU at the World Trade Organization, officials said.

LACK OF DATA

The trouble is that available scientific data and samples are too few. EFSA has given two opinions and admits its own uncertainty; although in July, the agency said cloned animal products might not be safe and needed further study.

It was clear there were significant animal health and welfare issues for surrogate mothers and clones that could be more frequent and severe than for conventionally bred animals, it said. But the evidence was still too little, it added. “The college (the 27 EU commissioners) decided that the status quo has to be preserved until we have further scientific studies on certain issues on which EFSA and other agencies could not express an opinion because of a lack of information and data,” a Commission official told reporters.

“We want to be sure we do not create problems so that is why we are having discussions with our trading partners,” she said.

EU experts were in close contact with authorities in Canada, Japan and the United States, the three main countries so far involved in cloning, or examining the technology.

Based on the views to be given by EFSA, when ready, the EU commissioners planned to hold another debate on cloning that would probably take place within three months, she said.

In October, a survey conducted at the Commission’s request showed that most EU citizens had reservations about cloning animals for food, while 67 percent saw cloning as justified if used to preserve rare animal species.

Developments in the U.S. food market have especially worried EU experts, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled in January 2008 that meat and milk from cloned cattle, pigs and goats was as safe as products from traditional animals.

Editing by Sue Thomas

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